Long time reader first time writer. Your column has hit really close to home many times and I figured it couldn’t hurt to get your take on my situation.
I am a hyper-independent female with a relatively active social life and am good with the opposite sex and dating. Sounds great right? Where’s the catch you ask? My problem starts when the sexy time ends and attachment begins.
To be super cliché, I don’t do love, rather I don’t feel love, at least not the hearts and flutters and serotonin that I am told people usually feel. I tell people this up front, and it has gone unheard time and time again. And in the end, it always goes badly and someone always gets hurt. I generally get called a cold unfeeling bitch. Because how can I not feel the same?! Or worse I will be told, then “I’ll just have to teach you how to love”.
Needless to say, I hate everything this implies. I have been in many long term unhealthy relationships because, maybe one day I’ll feel it, right? No dice. Can someone be aromantic but not asexual? And is there any way at all that I can be considered relationship material with out the love connection? Or am I going to be stuck with short term because people assume that I don’t feel anything just because I don’t feel as strongly as they do? Help!
Not A Fixer-Upper
This is a really good question, NAFU, because this goes further than folks not understanding concepts like asexuality or being aromantic and straight to “folks only hearing what they want to hear”. And hey, I can’t say I haven’t done the exact same thing; during one of my early relationships, a woman told me she was not looking for anything serious and didn’t want a boyfriend. I, of course, said “cool, not a problem.” Well, that’s what I said out loud, anyway. What I thought was “…bet I can change your mind!”
Needless to say, that relationship ended a little under six months later. I did not, in fact, change her mind. Even a little.
So, there’re a couple of things going on here, and they’re intertwined like horny snakes. On the micro level, we have a situation like yours: dudes who don’t seem to be willing to accept that being aromantic is a thing. Some of this can be chalked up to ignorance; while the asexuality spectrum – including aromanticism – has been increasingly studied and accepted, the concept of it hasn’t really reached mainstream cultural penetration yet. Most references to asexuality either come from relatively niche sources (such as, say, dating columnists with podcasts) or in mass-media with an audience that tends to have already heard of it.
But if you’re not young and Extremely Online or you don’t necessarily listen to a lot of Dan Savage or read… well, me… then the odds are good that the concept of someone being ace and aro may never have crossed your mind. In fact, if you’re of a certain age or political persuasion, the idea of asexuality as a sexual orientation or the idea that some folks just don’t feel romantic love quite possibly sounds entirely made up by folks who “just never met the right person.”
And to be fair1 we live in a culture that not only makes romantic relationships a cornerstone of just about all pop culture and entertainment, but one where the cold-hearted person has the ice in their soul melted by The One. They’re not uninterested in love because that’s just how they’re wired; they’re too obsessed with work or material things or they just have a massive stick up their ass that needs to be removed by A Manic Pixie Dream Girl or they’ve been hurt before and so they just put up that massive wall to keep from ever being hurt again. Of course, this just means that winning them over is the challenge and the prize is Twu Wuv and a Happily Ever After.
(OK, occasionally you get the ones who are autism-coded which is just actively insulting, but that’s a whole ‘nother rant entirely).
So it’s understandable – to an extent, anyway – that some folks may not understand that being aromantic isn’t a problem to be fixed. In fact, the narrative that the Ice Queen just Needs To Meet The Right Man can often be paired with the way men are socialized to believe our value comes from what we do and the idea that we aren’t wanted, so we have to be needed. And, of course, this is the perfect set-up for would-be White Knights and Nice Guys, who think that if they can “solve” this issue, then they’ll have “earned” somebody’s love.
This in and of itself is going to be a massive pain in the ass to anyone who’s ace or aro. It’s bad enough to be treated like a problem to be solved, especially when you don’t feel like it’s a problem. There’re few things that can be as irritating as someone who’s comfortable with their lack of interest in sex or romance being told that no, they’re not supposed to be ok with it and having folks try to fix a problem that isn’t a problem and doesn’t need fixing.
But it also ties into the macro-level issue: there’re a lot of folks out there – mostly, but not exclusively men – who don’t believe women actually know their own minds, bodies or lives. Telling them that you know exactly who you are, what you want and that you’re fine with that is unthinkable. They’ll click their tongues in sad disbelief and then pat you on the head because how could you possibly understand your own lived experiences? Don’t worry though, there’s a big strapping hero who’s come to set you straight, little missy.
(And don’t think I didn’t choose “set you straight” by accident; there are many lesbians who’ve grown up hearing that the only reason why they’re gay is because they haven’t had the right dick yet… complete with offers (or, often, threats) from dudes who are convinced that they have the magic wand that’ll convert ’em back to the path of dick.)
In a real way, it’s cultural gaslighting; you can’t possibly know how you feel, nor could you possibly be satisfied, even happy this way. So clearly you’re just resigned to things and need The Right Dick to show you everything you’ve been missing and oh look that just happens to involve them getting everything they want from you.
Now, again, to be fair2, this makes it sound like everyone who doesn’t believe that you could be aromantic is automatically a selfish dick who’s only thinking about what they want. There’re many – including, I’m sure, among the men you’ve known – who genuinely trying to help you and genuinely thought that you would appreciate it. But this ties right back to the idea that romantic love is all-important and that not being interested in it is a bad thing. The cultural narrative that (Romantic) Love Is All causes massive headaches because, frankly, there’s no nuance. It erases all other forms of love and closeness as being less important than Twu Wuv. People freak out because Elsa doesn’t have a love-interest and the true love that saves her sister is… the love of a sibling. Similarly, close friendships between men are seen as being romantic because we equate emotional intimacy with romance, instead of accepting that people can have strong, intense and meaningful platonic relationships that are just as important and just as fulfilling as romantic ones.
And of course, this is the same narrative that leads folks to think that you need romantic love to have a meaningful and fulfilling relationship – especially a long-term, committed relationship.
Because here’s the thing: being aro doesn’t mean that you don’t love people. It doesn’t mean that you don’t care for folks deeply, that people aren’t important to you or that they don’t bring value, joy and companionship into your life. It just means that – as you said – you don’t necessarily feel eros, the hearts-and-flowers-oxytocin-and-cartoon-birds kind of love. But there are many different kinds of love. There’s philia, the love felt in strong friendships, with affection and support and caring. There’s storge, the love of families, with compassion and empathy. And there’s agape, the sort of unconditional and selfless love for others. Just because you may not get ye olde butterflies and cherubs kind doesn’t mean you don’t love people or have strong connections with them; it just means that you don’t feel that specific kind of love. The other forms are no less valid and, critically no less important.
So yes, it is entirely possible to be aromantic and be long-term relationship material, just as it’s possible to be asexual and still be relationship material. Neither of these means that you’re broken, faulty or defective. The key, in both cases, is that those relationships will have to be with the right people. That, unfortunately, narrow down the potential dating pool because you want to find folks who grok that this isn’t about them. It’s not that they’re just not “special” enough to unlock your heart, any more than a man isn’t “special” enough to convince a lesbian to go straight. It’s just who you are and how you’re built. You want to make sure that the folks you date are people who understand that this is how you are and not that your lack of interest in romantic love (or sex, for ace folks) says anything about them.
This, admittedly, can be difficult. When people find out that love, as we tend to think of it, is off the table, they’re going to bail. That’s fine; those are folks who are self-selecting out of your dating pool and, in doing so, are doing you a favor. Unfortunately, there’re also a lot of folks who will say that they get it, even as they have the emotional equivalent of their fingers crossed behind their backs.
Um… not that I would know anything about that. Ahem.
The folks who are going to be right for you are going to be the ones who understand that there’s more to love than eros, and that the other kinds of love are just as important and significant. Maybe that will mean being open to polyamory, or dating folks who have no problem looking outside of their relationship for that sort of emotional fulfillment. Or it may mean a companionate relationship, where romantic love isn’t as important as the connection, support and affection you have for one another. Fortunately, the world is starting to wake up to the possibilities of many different kinds of long-term, committed relationships that aren’t just the standard issue version we’ve grown up with. Broadening our definitions of what commitment means or what love means creates more room for relationships that may not look like the norm, but are just as important and significant to the folks who share them.
Now, the ones that will hurt the most are the ones who’ll honestly mean it when they say that they’re cool with it, but who turn out not to be able to handle it. The ones who enter into a relationship in good faith but who, for whatever reason, can’t accept that the fact that you don’t love them the way they would prefer doesn’t mean that you don’t love them at all or in the way that you do. Unfortunately, you can’t protect someone from their own choices, nor can you prevent someone from getting their heart broken; the only thing you can do is love them as best you can in the ways that you do… even if that means having to let them go.
But then again: that’s true of everyone, ace, aro or otherwise. Love’s a full-contact sport, and that means there’s always a chance of getting hurt.
As always, though, it’s not about being safe. There is no reward without risk. Nobody promised you – or anyone else – a frictionless life free from risk. They just said that it would be worth the risk.